THE issues surrounding ``regional art'' -- what it is, who produces it, and whether it even exists -- have been the subject of considerable controversy over the years. The classification was taken for granted during the 1930s, when Midwest Regionalism inspired militant offshoots in the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, California, and other areas of the United States.
The world of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood is gone, however, and in its place we have a community of fairly like-minded artists that stretches from coast to coast and from the state of Washington to Florida.
Television, easy transportation to the major urban art centers, and more art books and art magazines than anyone can absorb have seen to that.
And yet, evidence keeps turning up to indicate that American art is not quite as homogeneous as we sometimes think -- that real stylistic and thematic differences do exist from place to place, and that painters in Rhode Island and Vermont may indeed see and express things somewhat differently than their peers in Oklahoma and Texas.
But does that prove that regional art is a reality?
Or is the issue more complex than that?
The ``Third Western States Exhibition,'' on view at the Brooklyn Museum, presents us with an excellent opportunity to do some research in this area.
The show is a project of the Santa Fe-based Western States Arts Foundation, and it consists of 127 works by 45 artists working in the West.
After reviewing the work of 500 artists nominated by curators and other art professionals, Charlotta Kotik, the Brooklyn Museum's curator of contemporary art, traveled roughly 42,000 miles to make studio visits to more than 125 of them. From these she chose 19 painters, 12 sculptors, 7 photographers, and 7 multi-media artists, concentrating primarily on lesser-known, more adventurous figures.
The resulting exhibition is extraordinarily lively and colorful, with a wide range of styles and techniques, and a high level of professionalism.
All that, however, only makes it a fairly typical American survey show of the mid-1980s. Diversity, skill, and pictorial liveliness, after all, are expected nowadays in any major exhibition of this sort.
On the other hand, there is something that sets this show apart. It's subtle and elusive -- primarily because it's an attitude more than anything else -- but it's there nevertheless in all but a few pieces.
It's an ``I can do what I like -- and nobody'd better try to stop me!'' attitude that I, for one, find rather engaging. And it's not the sham, posturing kind of painterly ``independence'' staged for maximum art-world effect with which we are all so familiar.
This obviously is the real thing, a genuine expression of creative individualism communicated through almost as many styles and approaches as there are artists. It exists in Sherry Markovitz's delightfully idiosyncratic papier-m^ach'e and beads treatment of a moose head; Melissa Miller's wonderfully incisive rendering of a blackbird eating a pumpkin; Charlotte Bender's fanciful ``1,000 Uses for Cactus''; and James Drake's remarkable and somewhat frightening ``Trophy Room II.''
But that's only the beginning.
Of the 45 artists, only six struck me as below par, and only three of them as outclassed. The other 39 all had something interesting or significant to say -- as well as the technical and formal means with which to say it.
The problem with most invitational exhibitions -- especially those representing new talent or, as in this case, the work of a particular geographic region -- is that they tend merely to reflect their organizer's preferences and prejudices.
That does not seem to be the case here.
Ms. Kotik did not limit herself to work she likes or to artists whose philosophies correspond to her own.
What we have, as a result, is about as fair a cross-section of western states art as we are likely to get. The big names (except for one or two) are missing -- as are the more straightforwardly realistic painters for which the West is becoming increasingly famous -- but that was intentional and understandable, and made very clear in Kotik's catalog text.
After its closing at the Brooklyn Museum on Aug. 5, the exhibition will travel to the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center (Oct. 18-Nov. 30).
Other stops include the J. B. Speed Museum, Louisville, Ky. (Jan. 2. 1987-Feb. 22); Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs, Colo. (March 14-May 17; San Antonio Museum of Art (June 7-Aug. 24).
Also, Yellowstone Art Center, Billings, Mont. (Sept. 12-Oct. 25); Palm Springs Desert Museum, Palm Springs, Calif. (Nov. 20-Jan. 10, 1988); and the San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, Calif. (Feb. 5-April 3).